An attack on truth

Every year, a new wave of high schoolers turn 18 and join the ranks of voters across the country. Young adults within Generation Z (Gen Z) have grown up around constant political attack ads on social media, deeply affecting how they perceive the world and interact with others. 

While “attack ads,” or advertisements whose message is intended to deliver a personal attack against a specific political opponent, rose to prominence during the 1960s, they’ve taken a completely new light in the 21st century. These ads would mainly air on television and were heavily regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. With the advent of social media and social media advertising, political ads – and attack ads specifically – have grown a presence on social media as well.  

For Gen Z students, social media has been a constant in our lives from an early age. Growing up on social media, many of us can remember political ads from various cycles, especially the harsher ones. Growing up seeing attack ads and encouragement to vote permeate all types of media, from television to radio and even Snapchat, has a significant influence on those who are now able to vote. We have been raised to think of politics as a battleground, where the two sides are unable to compromise or even see each other as human. A study from the Pew Research Center found that 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s wellbeing”. This, of course, has not stemmed exclusively from the prominence of attack ads, but it can’t be said that it hasn’t played a role. When you’re constantly surrounded by combative political discourse, it’s difficult to remain civil. 

Growing polarization has also impacted the ability of young people to distinguish misinformation from the truth. According to the New York Times, studies have shown that young people were more likely to believe disinformation about COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic, and frankly, this isn’t surprising. Our dependency on social media means that we are surrounded by disinformation at all times – a study in the journal Science shows that, online, fake news spreads faster than the truth. Political disinformation is especially dangerous, as it can give a false understanding of vital issues that affect everyone’s lives. If you see the same ad attacking a certain candidate multiple times a day, you’re going to start to absorb the information it’s presenting, even if it isn’t true. And, if you’re scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, it’s unlikely that you’ll stop to check whether the information you’re receiving is correct.

An informed voting populace is the cornerstone of any democracy, which is why these trends among young people are so worrying. However, some of the adult hand-wringing on this issue falls a little flat – Gen Z is just as capable of understanding and engaging in politics as any other generation. This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to be informed citizens. So, as you head to the polls this November or consider how you might vote when you’re eligible, remember the impact our media environment has had on you. In politics, it isn’t always clear cut who is right and wrong, so take the time to educate yourself about the issues that you find important. Remember that the information you are seeing on social media, especially sponsored posts like attack ads, may not always be accurate. Utilize tools like the Washington Post Fact Checker to see if politicians – even ones you support – are spreading disinformation. And, most importantly, stay engaged. It can be disheartening to see how combative political discussions have become, especially online, but the only way we can enact lasting change in our political environment is by voting in new voices. Whether you’re a first-time voter or look forward to voting when you’re older, remember: the future is in our hands.